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Yes! — this mix really is intended to be fun, open, easy and optimistic! But not light, or flabby, or sloppy, of course. I wanted it to be strong… and, yeah, it does get pretty loud at times. That’s where the “too much” in the title comes from.
It took a long time to find the right songs for such a mood. There are a lot more sad songs than happy ones, don’t you think? And this is at least partly because, in general, distress seems artier and savvier than comfort. But why is that?
Fountains of Wayne: All Kinds of Time
Starting things off we have a straight-ahead, mid-tempo rock composition with delightful lyrics. One expects a heaping helping of irony from these Fountains of Wayne guys — I mean, look what they picked for a moniker — but All Kinds of Time is really quite sweet. I remember thinking, the first time I heard it, “OK, here comes the coda and the sardonic twist.” Happily, there is no such twist. You know the catch is made, though you don’t see it happen; and the song tucks the ball under its arm and charges from mid-field all the way to the end zone.
Hall & Oates: You Make My Dreams
Let’s kick the tempo up just a couple BPM.
This time the lyrics are inconsequential and the beat is the thing. It makes me think of a buff crew installing a perfect hardwood floor in the all-purpose room. The drummer plays no in-betweens, only quarter-notes: boo, ka, boo, ka, lather, rinse, repeat. There’s no swing there; the swing comes from a crunchy Fender Rhodes; that’s the instrument that kicks off the song. Hall’s performance is electrifying. (It probably didn’t need such harsh EQ, but that’s a quibble.)
Devo: Big Mess
It’s time for adventure! The album (Oh, no! It’s Devo!) is not great, but the song is. (And I promise we’ll get out of the 80s soon.) Sure, the beat is robotic or shall we say idiotic. That’s Devo. But Big Mess is not only absurd. Check how the sounds go together: the voice, the many-layered synthesizers and the extra-bold Linn Drum parts. The architecture is tall, bright, and solid. The line “I mean a really big mess” cuts across the bar-line in this really catchy way. Quibble: the song is too long; it gets stuck in its arrangement and doesn’t know how to get out. Maybe we can minimize the damage with a really interesting segue.
Future 3: A Sound
This is a hard song to write about. The first time I heard it I thought I had died and gone to heaven and they were playing the Theme Song from Heaven that is always perfect and never gets old. But such generalities are not useful. One has to say something more specific than “this is the greatest thing ever,” even if it is. Especially if it is.
Let’s talk about the segue first. Again we sneakily bump the tempo up by just a few beats per minute. We started at 81 with All Kinds of Time; now we’re up to 87. More interesting is that this segue takes us from Devo’s old-school drum machines to the Future 3’s futuristic laptops; and from Devo’s clever, arty lyrics to the Future 3’s reductionist, obsessive and self-referential lyrics.
Any distortion in the tones is intentional; the group certainly knows how to record things properly, but they have purposely sanded patches of chrome off their sounds to expose the fiberglass. Note the background “keyboard” part that plays eighth-notes for two bars and then sustains for a bar. (The whole song is made of 3-bar cycles.) The sustained chord is the same snippet as the eighth-note chord, but transposed down too far, producing a weird buzz. That’s what happens if you’re not careful — or if you’re carefully cultivating exactly that effect.
Aside from all the technology, of course, we have just the sweetest darn song you can imagine, with clever drum parts, a sweet bass line, lovely melodies intertwining, and best of all, the hilarious, and dead-serious, lyrics.
Msomi & Amagugu: Emdlovana Zinkani
From Singing in an Open Space: Zulu Rhythm and Harmony, 1962-1982 (Rounder Records, 1990).
Like the Future 3, Msomi & Amagugu have an impeccable rhythmic sense; love strong, crunchy, gutsy sounds; and use repetition as a compositional technique. (“Who doesn’t use repetition as a compositional technique?”, someone will ask. I reply: Most people. I have a proof of this, but it is too long to fit in the margin.) Note the electric guitar, which is used as both a rhythm and a melody instrument. Finally, if the only percussion you’re hearing is the kick drum, listen carefully for a really nice little shaker part.
Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Click Clack
Is this not a killer segue? From South Africa, 1975: a cardboard drum, shantytown guitars, and sand-dune voices… to California, 1972: rail-yard drums, hobo guitars, and a voice made of coal. Generally I don’t care for programmatic effects, but the Magic Band’s steam-train vibe is irresistible. And who but the Captain would invoke the train’s departing whistle with, “My ears stand up when I hear that sound”? What a weird, scary, true thing to notice. And check the brilliant ending, with the slide guitar crumpling to the ground while the rest of the band chugs happily off into the distance, toward New Orleans.
Led Zeppelin: The Crunge
In general, there is no such thing as a ‘crunge’; this is the only one.
It seems appropriate to follow Click Clack’s steam-driven two-against-three with John Bonham’s extra-funky nine-beats-instead-of-eight. The Crunge is an impromptu goof, all in good fun, on James Brown. Where J.B. might call out, “Take it to the bridge!”, Robert Plant and his alter ego pretend to have misplaced the darn thing. (And sure enough, the song does not have one.) Plant’s off-the-cuff lyrics are a delight. “Ooh, and when she walks, she walks, and let me tell you when she talks, she talks.” Explain that, Mr. Wittgenstein!
The ending demonstrates an interesting principle of musical composition. If the music goes away during a sung or spoken phrase, you get a strange feeling, as if the song vanished in some impossible way, rather than that the players simply stopped playing. Latest Craze, by Seal, does this. I’m sure there are others.
Newcleus: Jam On It
Well, we really do seem to be having trouble staying out of the 80s. I cannot explain this.
Jam On It was written to be a crowd-pleaser, and therefore risks fitting much too neatly into anyone’s stereotyped judgements of its musical “genre”. So, to really hear it you might have to put some of that aside. Pretend you’ve never heard anything called “hip-hop” or “electro”. Imagine you woke up and heard this song on the clock-radio for utterly unknown reasons, like for example you don’t even have a clock-radio. The song is bubbly and silly and friendly — and beautifully made. It flows. It grooves. All the parts work together, and there are as few as possible at every moment, like Steve Reich’s early pieces. Unfortunately, Reich never wrote anything like “Go crazy! Go crazy! Don’t let your body be lazy! I said don’t — stop — the body rock till your eyesight starts to get hazy!”
Aadesh Shrivastava: Come On – Come On
Might this hip-hop-inspired Bollywood rave-up (from Baabul) help us step outside genre stereotypes? Look, you got your hip-hop percussion plus the Indian kind; your hip-hop and dancehall vocal stylings (mostly in English) plus the Indian sort (mostly in Hindi)… but I don’t know, maybe Shrivastava is just mixing the two genres without really integrating or transcending them, you know? Maybe this song is just sheer pandering! The singing sure is good, though. Bollywood singers tend to be about twelve times as accomplished as American singers. And the beats are good. And the melodies. So, what’s not to like?
Toumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra: Single
Speaking of musicianship, check out Diabaté’s band. That crew is fierce.
We’ve had a couple detours, but the program of gradual acceleration is still in force. We’re up to 118, can you feel it? 118 is not really very fast, but it sounds frantic after such a slow ramp-up. The arrangement contributes, too: the intricate bass and kora parts, and the slight, precise swing at the sixteenth-note level.
Everything I’ve heard from Diabaté till now has been seriously laid-back. It’s nice to hear him get loud. He’s a monster on the kora but here he wisely keeps his solos close to the mix instead of out front. “The groove is the thing,” he’s telling us, and I appreciate that.
Christopher Willits: Medium Blue
This is the farthest from “pop” music we’ll get this time. It’s from Surf Boundaries, a fascinating album that leans much more toward “experimental” than “pop”.
Listen past the insane drum intro; it’s not important (IMHO) to the rest of the piece.
Willits is using some of the same laptop techniques the Future 3 used: brief snippets of recorded instruments (guitars, drums, voices and so on) are manipulated and looped and manipulated some more, then stacked in careful layers. But if A Sound is a sculpture carved from ice, Medium Blue is a wedding-cake — gloriously decorated but, I’m sorry, darling, it seems to be kind of melting?
Ulrich Schnauss: remix of Chinese Letter by the High Violets
The tempo here is very fast (140 BPM), but the sound is so mellow one doesn’t hear it that way.
The High Violets are a competent but not special band. Ulrich Schnauss has re-imagined their New Wave sound as a dream-world of pastel mists shot through with blue lightning. (That’s what I’m hearing, anyway.) The vocals are pushed way back, which was a good idea because in true alt-rock fashion the singing is not very good. Schnauss makes them sound good — the singing, the guitars, the drums, everything. He even took out some of the more awkward chord changes, so the harmony is steadier and sweeter than in the original.
In case you’re not familiar with this culture, these days a “remix” can involve any alteration the producer wishes. There are some radical and ravishing ones out there; Talvin Singh’s remix of Maria, an irritating ditty from Blondie, is in the same vein as the present example.
Knox Bronson: Stay
For the closer, let’s get slow and slow-dance with our eyes closed. Don’t be afraid of those perfectly natural protrusions on your partner’s body. This is from Knox’s new album, Pop Down the Years. The bass line and the chord changes are just lovely. The arrangement is sophisticated in its precision layerings and the sensitive pacing of its subtle mood-shifts; but it does not call attention to itself. That’s the best kind of music. It doesn’t yell from the bandstand, “Look at me!” but sings quietly in the park waiting for you to find it. And — bonus! — most of the lyrics are just that one word, ‘stay’. You know the first time what it means, so after that, you don’t have to worry about it, only listen. After all, words are almost never important. Forget yourself and drink in the warmth being offered to you through that soft cotton shirt.